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Search continues for courtroom space

By DAVID TEWES
Jan. 10, 2011 at 4:05 p.m.
Updated Jan. 9, 2011 at 7:10 p.m.


CROWDED COURTSCourt-at-Law Judge Dan Gilliam reported that between Jan. 1, 2010, and Nov. 30, there were 2,036 criminal and civil cases handled by the two courts-at-law.

That does not include 375 probate hearings disposed of by both courts.

In the same period, there were 2,421 criminal and civil cases handled by four district courts.

No nook or cranny is off limits in Victoria's courthouses.

County officials began a search last week looking for space that could help free up room for the county's courts. County Judge Don Pozzi told the commissioners court Monday that search continues.

"I've said over the last few years one of my top priorities is additional courtroom space," he said. "We have to have it."

But Pozzi noted there is no money available to make extensive, permanent changes for now that were planned several years ago. That's why he and others are looking for an interim fix.

The search began after a tug-of-war developed last week over courtrooms.

Court-at-Law 2 Judge Dan Gilliam, elected last year, learned on his first day at work that a desk and equipment had been moved from the third-floor courtroom traditionally used by his predecessor. It wound up in the commissioners court courtroom and a hallway.

A notice posted on the courtroom door on District Judge Stephen Williams' letterhead noted the courtroom would be reserved for district court only. It also stated that Gilliam's cases would be heard on the second floor of the courthouse.

Pozzi then called a meeting of the district and courts-at-law judges, and they agreed Gilliam could use the commissioners court courtroom, one of the district court courtrooms and the courtroom used by the other court-at-law judge.

Gilliam and Court-at-Law No. 1 Judge Laura Weiser have also worked out a schedule of who would hold court where.

Resident Ernie Byrd told the commissioners court Monday he had visited the courtrooms 10 times and found they were empty in the afternoons. He said cleaning crews confirmed that.

"I wasn't going to get up and speak, but you kind of hit a nerve," he said. "I don't think you need the courtroom space."

Pozzi disagreed.

He said when the 1967 courthouse was built, there were only two district courts and a county court. "So it was more than adequate."

But the county has added two district judges, two courts-at-law judges and a master. Meanwhile, the docket has at least doubled in recent years, Pozzi said.

"So there are five judges basically without courtrooms," Pozzi said. "These problems have existed for a very long time."

He said he's considered such options as meeting in the courthouse annex. But that would remove the commissioners court from a secure setting that includes metal detectors at the courthouse entrance.

Given recent events, Pozzi said he hesitates to do that.

He's also considered making changes that would allow court in the commissioners court courtroom. Pozzi said the city of Victoria has offered to allow the county to use its municipal court courtroom, which doubles as the city council's meeting place.

Gilliam may have best summed up the situation in an update letter he sent to Pozzi: "I realize that you are probably not going to satisfy everyone, but you may be able to come to a more plausible solution and decipher the real 'needs.'"

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